Monday, 16 June 2014

Interview with Michela Ledwidge

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Michela Ledwidge, artist, director, and most recently the co-founder of Mod Productions, a production studio focused on interactive entertainment. Hello Michela!
Michela: Hi Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Michela: I’m a 40something artist and director living in Sydney, working on multi-platform media productions. I transitioned when I was 25. 
Monika: You are said to be a geek since you have been involved in the development of so many inventions…
Michela: That’s fair. I’ve been a technologist since the 80s when I used to sneak into my parent’s bedroom to play with Dad’s Commodore 64 which I wasn’t supposed to touch without supervision. I’m still mucking around with new tech all these years later and enjoy writing words, code, and music. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to the internet early on and networked communication has been the basis of my approach to media making ever since.
Monika: With almost 20 years of experience in the digital media sector you have been at the forefront of cutting-edge developments. What is the future of digital media?
Michela: Things are pretty cyclic. We’re still exploring internet ideas that were first mooted in the 60s and 70s and human nature is still the key driver. Digital media is undeniably an amazing resource for those privileged enough to have it and we will see some amazing engineering and medical advances in the coming years that will employ new forms of media making.
However, I do fear that digital media may one day be the poor substitute for quality media distributed to the masses who cannot afford more organic humanist forms. I don’t spend much time trying to predict the future but Jaron Lanier’s recent book “Who Owns The Future?” describes an uncomfortable vision I can relate to.

Night of Many Stars - MISSED premiere.

Monika: In 2001 you wrote, directed, and produced the multi-lingual interactive short film titled “Horses for Courses” which was awarded the web3d art prize at SIGGRAPH that year. What inspired you to produce that film?
Michela: It was 2001! I wanted to make a modern film that reflected the times and for me, that meant poking fun at the crass commercialism around the 1st dotcom boom (this was before the bubble crashed) and take advantage of early web tech that would give the audience interactive control of the camera and story (in a way that is now mainstream in video games).
Monika: Have you directed any films since then?
Michela: A few short films but I have been working on immersive video systems – the tools themselves – for a number of years. My most recent show as a director is ACO VIRTUAL – which is an interactive immersive video experience of the Australian Chamber Orchestra that was shot with 13 3D cameras rolling and released in 2013.
Monika: Have you ever thought about directing a film about transgender-related topics? 
Michela: I have been filing ideas away for transgender film-making for about 25 years under the label “T*” but nothing much has come out of it yet apart from a little interactive video jukebox piece in 2006 where I contributed to a group show called Deviant Bodies. I’m sure I will do something one day.
Monika: At the time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you followed?
Michela: I spent a lot of time researching transgender stories around the world and high profile Australians like Carlotta certainly helped clarify my sense of identity but I never went through a drag queen/showgirl phase so I was more influenced by conversations that I had face-to-face with social workers and with anonymous peers on the IRC (Internet Relay Chat) network on channel #crossdress than anything.
As an early Web professional, access to global networks was a real gift in that I could converse and discuss with other transgenders around the world. Some of those early conversations were more valuable than media coverage.

Sydney Film Festival 2009. Winning the
inaugural Peter Rasmussen Award at the
Sydney Film Festival.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Michela: Gaining acceptance and support from my family. I grew up in a very conservative Catholic household and was educated in a very masculine way. It took many years for my transition to be reconciled with my parents and sisters.
We’re all still very close but there were a number of very uncomfortable years where I had to go off and do my own thing and complete transition. I love being part of my extended family and very grateful that the hard years of acceptance are over.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in Australian society?
Michela: Australia is going through a particularly bad period politically and socially. We’re gaining an international reputation as a cold, uncaring, mean, and narrow-minded society through our politics. This does filter down to the treatment of all minorities. Ultimately this is quite a sexist society and women are often expected to behave in quite masculine ways to get ahead in business and public life.
That said, we have rights and freedoms that should not be taken for granted. I go about my personal and professional life without any real fear of persecution or harm based on who I am. I live in “tranny central” in the heart of Sydney where the population is the most sexually and gender diversity in the country. In other words, it can be a bit of a bubble! I do feel that transgender identity is still not taken seriously by most of the population and considered (quietly) to be a mental illness. As a transgender entrepreneur, this is very unhelpful. We’re a conservative bunch here!
Monika: A few weeks ago Jared Leto received his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "Dallas Buyers Club" as transgender Rayon. What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far? 
Michela: The more the merrier. I think it’s great that transgender stories are more visible and it would be good to see more transgender creative talent out there as well. Leto’s character didn’t resonate that strongly with me but I did love Laverne Cox’s character in Orange is the New Black. More characters that were not bitchy, queens, or hairdressers would be good.
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBT communities? Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBT group?
Michela: It’s a tricky one. I do respect the role of LGBTI organizations to advocate on our behalf for the rights of all sex and gender diverse people but it is important that transgender individuals not rely on broad-brush associations. In my experience, transgender identity is not always well understood even within LGBTI organizations and our issues are not always taken seriously.

Trooper, Blade, and Michela. Much of 2005 was
spent working on her sci-fi superhero flic Sanctuary.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Michela: I used to be more directly involved in politics than I am today, mainly supporting my partner when she was active in student politics and direct action but not so much directly now.
However, I always feel that simply by being out and proud as a transgender person in society, especially as an entrepreneur there is a political dimension to everything I do. I rarely get directly asked about my status or gender politics today in conservative Australia but it is clearly noted.
The best thing we can do politically is to be visible as active members of the wider community. In Australia, I’m a supporter of community advocacy groups like ACON and Get Up that actively lobby our government on specific issues. Absolutely transgender women can make a difference in politics – just by being present at the table.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Michela: I’ve been in a same-sex (lesbian) relationship for the last 16 years and we’ve been married for 13. Without love, my life would be far poorer but you can’t go looking for it. I’ve been extremely lucky to find a partner with a very open perspective on gender. We met in the very early stages of my transition so our relationship has been a real journey of discovery.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Michela: Yes but there are more interesting things to write about than me. 
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Michela: Mod is working on a new interactive exhibition for the Museum of Australian Democracy at the moment in Canberra called Power Of 1. It’s an interesting time for Australia and we’re treating this as an opportunity to create something a little provocative and remind people about what they can do with their vote. I’m also developing a number of new shows that will use our immersive video technology that has been very successful with ACO VIRTUAL.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls struggling with gender dysphoria?
Michela: Be true to yourself and trust your instincts. Work out what help you need and ask for it. As my grandmother said during the transition “Oh well.. as long as you’re healthy”.
Stay healthy and listen to your body. It can be such a confusing time but I think for most of us, we’ve had to channel inner strength to confront social norms and be brave about who we are. Self-respect and confidence come from within. It’s easy to be glib about all this – especially when living in a society where I am not in serious danger of being killed over my identity – but people respect those who respect themselves. Respect and all power to you! 
Monika: Michela, thank you for the interview!

All the photos: courtesy of Michela Ledwige.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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